Digital isn’t about technology. It’s about Ideas & Imagingation: Ajaz Ahmad

30 Sep,2014


At 21, Ajaz Ahmed founded AKQA to help clients create the future. The firm employs 1600 people in 13 offices, including an office in India. Clients include Red Bull and Nike. A recognized pioneer, Ajaz Ahmed co-authored Velocity, a bestselling book alongside Nike’s head of digital support, Stefan Olander. MxMIndia caught up with Mr Ahmed soon after he spoke to a packed hall at the Kyoorius Designyatra earlier this month


You are one of the pioneers of digital media advertising. Since you embarked on the journey to what is the scene now, what do you think is the most significant difference in the attitudes of the people around in the rest of the advertising and media landscape?

It’s difficult to believe now but when I was 21 and we talked about how we felt digital technology would transform the world… people didn’t believe us and those were people in the industry. A lot of organizations didn’t believe us, so, over time, that prediction we had that technology would change people’s lives and transform industry has come through and we’ve played a small role in that as well, by creating services, applications, ideas for some of the greatest brands and as we’ve done that, it’s provided inspiration to the industry. I think a lot of people love innovating, they love creating and digital expands the canvas. That’s really what it meant for people, it gives creative people a new canvas where they can try new things and experiment.


A fair amount of what is happening in digital is technology-driven. Do you think digital media is more about technology or is it more about creativity?

We’ve always felt that digital isn’t about technologies, it’s about ideas and that’s why we say the most powerful force in the universe isn’t technology, it’s imagination. Because it’s only through our imagination that we can create ideas that have resonance. You’ll get gizmos and flavours of the month and the focus should be on creating something that will contribute usefully to people’s lives.


Lemme ask this differently. If you look at the last three years, Search Advertising, HTML5, the explosion of the social media… all these have been technology-led and the creative fraternity and people like yourself have embraced it well and used it optimally. So what comes first? Technology or ideas? Are you always dependent on technologists to dream up something new?

I can talk from an AKQA and our clients’ perspective. AKQA is imaginative application of art and science to create beautiful ideas, products and services. That’s why we exist. When an organization produces a technology that we feel has an incredible application, that can be true to one of our clients mission, their authenticity, that helps them articulate a brand in a way that’s extraordinarily resonant with many people… we embrace that. With the examples that you’ve selected, you mentioned social, search, you mentioned HTML5, there’s also mobile, wearable devices, the canvas… it gets richer and richer and the tools that creative people get to be creative have improved. There was a generation of creatives that got excited about the airbrush when the airbrush technology happened and a generation when radio was invented. Why shouldn’t we get excited when there are amazing tablets, when there’s new wearable devices like the I-watch, when we can use technology in a much more engaging, fulfilling, creative and rich way? The test of a creative is how technology is applied in a non-obvious way to create something that has a sense of magic to it


In a typical creative agency, you have creative folk who think of the lines and situations and there are radio/print/television production folk who get into the execution. In the case of digital media, there is integrated functioning. So how does a digital media agency get structured in terms of talent? Do you have more people who are into creative execution or you have people keeping tabs on the way that technology is doing and what more you can develop?

A third of our business is people who are designing and in creative, a third are people in technology and about a third is those who are in project management and strategy. For everyone it’s about being creative. We’re organized like a collection of start-ups. We don’t have any bureaucracy. We don’t have anything holding us back to achieve what we need to on behalf of our clients.


How familiar are you with the Indian digital media creative scenario?

You can familiarize me.


Well, the digital media scenario hasn’t taken off in a big way. Many creative campaigns are take-offs on the cult film Sholay or antics of a megastar like Rajnikant. In terms of usage of digital media, brands and marketers haven’t really grown like they should have. That’s why digital promotions haven’t taken off.

That’s why we need your publication to champion creativity and excellence. You can really help educate leaders to embrace digital media.


What I want to know is how did it move in the Western world? The big TVCs are essentially made for television. Here, not many dollars are spent on creative work in digital media. How does the transition happen and how do you think it could move?

You need to see how people are changing, the equity of smartphones, the population is changing from being couch potatoes who sat in front of their television to people who’re doing many other activities and they’re using their device to empower them. Every generation uses technology in a more interesting and evolutionary way. We’re going through that evolution now.


A little about AKQA in India…

We’ve got a humble beginning, we’re under 50 people. We’re working with a number of clients and our focus is quality, we’re happy to take the long-term view and produce the best work we can with the best clients we can and if we focus in quality, the scale will come.


In India the WPP group is very large.

WPP has amazing authenticity in India. It has a real depth and it’s really invested in the market.


Sir Martin Sorrell is here almost every six months, sometimes more often. In India a lot of digital agencies have been invested into or gobbled up by the large networks. Does it help being part of a large agency or is it better to have more independence and creative journalism bloom

Where it has helped take AKQA is, where we want to set up in a new market such as Canada and we can get WPP’s help with the back-office and administration and the legal requirements to help us fast forward the presence… so we can be quickly on the ground to help our clients. That’s where we’ve been able to really benefit from WPP’s ecosystem of relationships all over the world.


They’ve also invested in Indian digital enteprises. Will there be any synergies there?

AKQA is now more independent than it’s ever been. We’re focused on keeping that independent, creative, entrepreneurial spirit. Certain culture, values and a certain DNA. WPP gives us freedom and independence so we could achieve the best work for our clients.


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